St. Paul schools tackle educational inequities

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Similar efforts around the state face White backlash

On June 15 a committee at Saint Paul Public Schools put forth a list of inequities faced by district students and staff. This comes during a time in which parents around the state are confronting school board leaders for their commitments to diversity and equity work. 

The list was produced by the district’s equity committee, a 22-person group of district leaders, staff, parents and students. The committee was formed in 2019 and is tasked with identifying racial inequities in the district and making recommendations on how to eliminate these issues.

Peggy Nayar, a teacher on special assignment, has been with the district for 23 years and participated in the committee’s work to outline inequities. “Over several months we worked in four different groups as an entire committee that had administrators, community members, parents and students,” Nayar said.

“We solicited and asked for inequity statements, and those were divided up. We tried to determine what was very important to our stakeholders.”

The process to collect this feedback was twofold. First, members of the committee were asked to list inequities that they or people close to them had experienced within the district. This produced a list of 56 inequities by committee members.

Second, the committee surveyed district staff about what inequities they’d come across, which brought out an additional 71 inequities for a total of 127. Committee members worked to reduce that list to seven.

Although the committee’s surveys found many disparities, its members concluded that many of the issues brought forth were inextricably linked. “One of the presenters made a point that really stuck with me,” Nayar said. “These all intersect. Maybe if students felt connected to the curriculum that was presented to them, they wouldn’t disengage.”

Myla Pope is the assistant director of the Office of Equity and a self-described byproduct of SPPS, having graduated from the district. She agreed with fellow committee members that the inequities listed had underlying ties. “One issue doesn’t sit alone,” she said. “I think what’s important to know is that this is an intersectional conversation and it’s a very dynamic one.”

Submitted photo Myla Pope

Suspension disparities

An area that concerns committee members as an intersecting point is the disparity of suspensions between Students of Color and White students. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Black students made up 26% of the enrollment in SPPS but 73% of the out-of-school suspensions in the 2019-20 school year.

Pope believes that unconscious bias from educators has led to this disproportionate suspension of students. “A lot of the policies and practices in place were made by people that don’t look like our students,” she said. “How do you make these conscionable decisions about how things are supposed to operate?”

Currently, 21% of SPPS teachers are non-White. Statewide that number falls to just four percent. Studies show that teachers of color help boost the attendance and performance of students at risk of failing.

Culturally relevant teaching

The lack of diversity in the curriculum was also a part of the committee’s proposals. Students of color make up about 79 percent of the district’s population. A significant number of those students come from immigrant backgrounds, which presents a different set of challenges.

Having worked with English as a Second Language students, Nayar has been dedicated to providing solutions that continue to integrate relevant lessons to the district’s immigrant students. “We’re such a large second-language population, and I would say that’s such a gift to us as a district in Saint Paul,” she said. “We don’t need to pull kids out and put them in a room where there’s a sign over the door that says ELL.”

Because of the district’s diversity, its leaders have provided educators with resources and toolkits to better their understanding of how to teach their students.

“I think historically Saint Paul Public Schools has had various means by which to resource information and training for educators around their practice and curriculum,” said Pope. “The Center for Equity and Culture out of Washington Magnent School has learning trunks available around racial and cultural groups.”

Much of the push for a diverse curriculum has focused on creating ethnic studies programs around social studies courses. However, some teachers are finding ways to incorporate relevant teaching to other subjects as well. Nayar points to the work of Ishmael Robinson, a math supervisor at SPPS whose curriculum development utilizes students’ own backgrounds.

“We do have a number of people within our district that are really trying to lead this charge of changing these things for our students and for our educators,” Nayar said. “There’s a seventh-grade unit where students look at crime in their neighborhood to learn how to interpret data.”

Submitted photo Peggy Nayar

Stifling educators

While district leaders in SPPS push for diversity in the curriculum and teaching staff, other districts around the state are facing pressure to avoid measures that would address racial inequities in educating students.

The Pequot Lakes school district recently received backlash from some White parents for their disapproval of a program that helps teachers learn how to achieve equity in the classroom. School districts in Brainerd and Lakeville have also experienced similar resistance from community members about their commitments to equity for their students.

These events are a part of a nationwide political campaign against critical race theory—a legal framework used to examine racism’s structural and systemic impact on people of color—from being taught in public schools. Over two dozen states have introduced legislation to ban critical race theory in the classroom, framing it as an effort to promote one race against another.

Dr. Rose Brewer is a professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities who specializes in historical sociology, social movements, and political economy. Having worked with educators in creating culturally relevant curriculums, she considers the effort to stifle educators from talking about race in their classrooms to be a “dangerous” precedent.

“It is so critical that the curriculum reflects the truths of this country,” Brewer said. “Often what young people are taught is very distorted or inaccurate or really renders invisible the nature of the political and economic structure.”

Minnesota has glaring disparities between Whites and People of Color in employment, education, and homeownership. Brewer said that these inequities point to deep structural issues that go beyond interpersonal racism, and the efforts to keep this information away from students is indicative of a fear of that equitable change being reached.

“Those are the kind of issues that the powers that be don’t want to go into, but it’s absolutely essential,” Brewer said. “When you have young people who understand how systems work and how structures play out, we’re working on a much leveler playing field where those kinds of transformational changes are going to be necessary.”

In the coming months a new equity committee from SPPS will be formed to take these recommendations on inequities found in the district and provide solutions. “I see them as action workgroups that will be meeting, doing research, convening with district leaders at the helm of areas where inequities [have been identified],” Pope said.

Going forward, the district will continue to engage with parents and community members to learn what they see as a need for students to perform in the classroom and work to close the gaps that remain. “What was clear to me is that this group recognizes this is not just an effort for SPPS. This is also for our community. The village needs to step in.”

About Abdi Mohamed

Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at amohamed@spokesman-recorder.com.

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